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The Aurora Borealis and the Vikings

Dear Viking Answer Lady:

What kind of beliefs did the Vikings have concerning the Aurora Borealis? All I have found is a number of websites claiming that the aurora was belived to be the god Ullr putting on a visual display.

(signed) Enlighten Me

Gentle Reader:

Aurora photographed in AlaskaAurora photographed in Alaska, 03/30/1997, by Dick Hutchinson
(Click image to enlarge)

Aurora photographed in AlaskaAurora photographed in Alaska, 01/06/1998, by Dick Hutchinson
(Click image to enlarge)

Aurora photographed in AlaskaAurora photographed in Alaska, 11/06/2001, by Dick Hutchinson
(Click image to enlarge)

The Old Norse word for the aurora borealis is norðrljós, "northern lights". The first occurrence of the term norðrljós is in the book Konungs Skuggsjá (The King's Mirror, known in Latin as Speculum Regalae), written in 1250 AD, after the end of the Viking Age (the Viking Age dates ca. 800-1100AD), describing the Northern Lights as seen by settlers in Greenland:

"But as to that matter which you have often inquired about, what those lights can be which the Greenlanders call the northern lights, I have no clear knowledge. I have often met men who have spent a long time in Greenland, but they do not seem to know definitely what those lights are. However, it is true of that subject as of many others of which we have no sure knowledge, that thoughtful men will form opinions and conjectures about it and will make such guesses as seem reasonable and likely to be true. But these northern lights have this peculiar nature, that the darker the night is, the brighter they seem; and they always appear at night but never by day, most frequently in the densest darkness and rarely by moonlight. In appearance they resemble a vast flame of fire viewed from a great distance. It also looks as if sharp points were shot from this flame up into the sky; these are of uneven height and in constant motion, now one, now another darting highest; and the light appears to blaze like a living flame. While these rays are at their highest and brightest, they give forth so much light that people out of doors can easily find their way about and can even go hunting, if need be. Where people sit in houses that have windows, it is so light inside that all within the room can see each other's faces. The light is very changeable. Sometimes it appears to grow dim, as if a black smoke or a dark fog were blown up among the rays; and then it looks very much as if the light were overcome by this smoke and about to be quenched. But as soon as the smoke begins to grow thinner, the light begins to brighten again; and it happens at times that people think they see large sparks shooting out of it as from glowing iron which has just been taken from the forge. But as night declines and day approaches, the light begins to fade; and when daylight appears, it seems to vanish entirely.

The men who have thought about and discussed these lights have guessed at three sources, one of which, it seems, ought to be the true one. Some hold that fire circles about the ocean and all the bodies of water that stream about on the outer sides of the globe; and since Greenland lies on the outermost edge of the earth to the north, they think it possible that these lights shine forth from the fires that encircle the outer ocean. Others have suggested that during the hours of night, when the sun's course is beneath the earth, an occasional gleam of its light may shoot up into the sky; for they insist that Greenland lies so far out on the earth's edge that the curved surface which shuts out the sunlight must be less prominent there. But there are still others who believe (and it seems to me not unlikely) that the frost and the glaciers have become so powerful there that they are able to radiate forth these flames. I know nothing further that has been conjectured on this subject, only these three theories that I have presented; as to their correctness I do not decide, though the last mentioned looks quite plausible to me."

There appears to be no substantiation for a connection between the god Ullr and the aurorae. People seem to have made a leap from the etymology of the god's name, which is connected with roots meaning "glory, shining", to the idea of the Northern Lights.

Similarly, there is the claim in Bullfinch's Mythology that the armor of the Valkyries "sheds a strange flickering light, which flashes up over the northern skies" making the aurora. Once again, there is nothing mentioned in the Old Norse literature that substatiates this assertion, and it can only be taken as either a fanciful interpretation, or perhaps an accretion from later folklore that arose after the end of the Viking Age.

A third misunderstanding about the Vikings and the Northern Lights is that the colorful auroral archways were identified as the Bifröst Bridge, which was a trembling and fiery path that fallen warriors could travel to Valhalla. In Gylfaginning ch. 13, a part of Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, we are clearly told that this bridge is in fact the rainbow:

Er þér eigi sagt það að guðin gerðu brú til himins af jörðu, og heitir Bifröst? Hana muntu séð hafa. Kann vera að það kallir þú regnboga. Hún er með þrem litum og mjög sterk og ger með list og kunnáttu meiri en aðrir smíðir.

Have you never been told that the gods built a bridge from earth to heaven called Bifröst? (Quivering Roadway) You will have seen it, (but) maybe you call it the rainbow. It has three colors and is very strong, and made with more skill and cunning than other structures.

Strange as it may seem, when examining Old Norse literature, none of the mythological materials nor sagas mention the aurora at all. One must turn to science to discern a possible explanation.

The aurora is generated as a phenomenon of the solar winds (and made especially bright and active with increased sunspot activity) via the solar winds interaction with the Earth's magnetic field and atmosphere. The Earth is surrounded by a thin gas cover (the atmosphere) and fast charged particles (plasma) are moving in space above it. Auroras arise when some of those particles enter the Earth's atmosphere and collide with atoms and molecules. When the particles collide the energy used to give them their velocity changes into a light, the aurora. The particles that make auroras come from the ionosphere but have an extremely high velocity due to the energy from the solar wind. The particles are caught by the Earth's magnetic field and are steered towards the poles. When a particle reaches the atmosphere it collides with one of the many present atoms. The particle keeps on moving but with less velocity, since it has lost some energy to the atom. When a lot of particles collide with atoms, releasing light, an aurora occurs. (Jutström, Jenny. "Why are there auroras?")

Solar Flare and Earth's Magnetosphere
Illustration of the solar wind and its effect upon Earth's magnetic field.
(David P.Stern and Mauricio Peredo. The Exploration of the Earth's Magnetosphere.)


Image showing path of particles travelling from sun then being trapped by the Earth's magnetic field and hurtled towards the poles, causing the aurora.
(NORDLYS - The Northern Lights Website)

The next scientific fact that is important in this investigation is that the aurora is not visible all over the polar region - instead, by keeping tabs on how often aurora was seen in various locations, scientists discovered that the aurora actually occurred in a 1500 mile radius ring or oval centered around not the North Pole or South Pole, but rather the geomagnetic pole. The earth's axis of spin (the North and South Poles) are not the same as magnetic north/south: the geomagnetic poles are instead displaced from the spin axis.

The geomagnetic north pole is not the same as the Earth's axis of spin. UV photo of the auroral oval UV image of the auroral oval.
The geomagnetic north pole is not the same as the Earth's axis of spin.
(Adapted from UMKC Geosciences Department's Maps and Map Reading: Module 9 of Environmental Science 110 WEB-LAB)
UV photo of the auroral oval
From the Earth Camera of the Visible Imaging System (VIS), one of twelve instruments on the Polar Satellite of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
(L.A. Frank and John B. Sigwarth, Lights Below: The Aurora from Space Website)
MPEG movie of the UV image of the auroral oval.
(Click image above to view movie)
(Regents of the University of California, "What Do Auroras Look Like From Space?")

Another surprising fact is the geomagnetic pole moves!! Today, the geomagnetic North Pole is moving approximately northwest at 40 km per year. The Earth is not a solid sphere. Deep at the center of the earth is the planet's core, thought to be composed of an iron alloy. Some regions of the core are molten, while in others the gradual cooling of the planet over millenia has allowed some iron to solidify out of the liquid alloy. Lighter portions of the alloy rise, heavier portions sink, which causes a roiling within the core similar to that in a pan of boiling water. As the Earth rotates, Coriolis forces twist and shear these currents in the core, and the movement and rotation ultimately results in the Earth's electrical and magnetic fields, with the whole planet acting as a dynamo. Because the Earth is not a perfect sphere, and various regions of the planet's interior are likewise irregular, the currents in the core are unstable, which causes the movement in the geomagnetic pole. (April Holladay, "A Compass Says Little at a Pole")

Determining the historical movements of the geomagnetic pole is part of the science of archaeomagnetism. It was discovered that clay, when heated to a high temperature, acquires magnetism that parallels the magnetic field of the Earth. By testing this magnetism in objects which can also be dated by other methods, one may discern the direction of the geomagnetic pole at the date the clay item was last heated. As scientists have collected large numbers of data points in this way, a map has been developed showing the past peregrinations of the geomagnetic pole. Archaeomagnetic records show that the geomagnetic pole, and thus the auroral oval, moved away from Scandinavia and towards first northern Canada then Siberia during the Viking Age. (Richard Effland, "Introduction to Dating"; Harald Falck Ytter, Aurora: The Northern Lights in Mythology, History and Science)

Movement of the auroral oval and the geomagnetic pole from 600 AD to 2000 AD.
Movement of the auroral oval and the geomagnetic pole from 600 AD to 2000 AD.

Despite the fact that the most frequent zone of auroral displays was moving away from Scandinavia, it is well-known that sunspot activity increases the intensity and range of the aurora, occasionally making them visible far to the south, even in Italy or southern Europe, as in 1619 when Galileo Galilei originally coined the term aurora borealis to describe what he thought resembled an early sunrise appearing in the north. Since sunspots increase the energy of the solar wind, the auroras are especially vivid during solar storms and high periods of sunspot activity.

However, there are good indications from sun-spot observations recorded back for millenia by Chinese observers that there may have been very few sunspots during the Viking Age (ca. 800 AD to 1100 AD):

From about the year 850 to 1000 the Chinese scholars noted relatively few sun spots, but their counts began to increase after 1000 and reached a high point shortly before 1130. There were some reflection of this in European chronicles. Ralph, archbishop of Canterbury, died in 1126 and an English annalist who recorded the event also noted that sailors reported seeing a broad wall of fire in the northeastern skies.

The sunspot count dropped immediately after 1130, and almost none were recorded until 1192. The number for 1192, however, was the greatest the Chinese had ever recorded. Improved techniques of observation and recording may have had something to do with this, but it is clear that immense amounts of matter and energy were spewed out of the sun in 1192. This torrent fueled the aurora that startled the population of northwestern Europe and started some monastic chroniclers wondering if this extraordinary event might have any significance for the coming harvest.

In fact, the aurora of 1192 marked the end of any major solar disturbances for a long while. It was not until 1375 that the Chinese observers registered a few years of relatively high sun spot counts, and European chronicles recorded a flurry of auroras during that same period. The years from 1192 to 1375 marked one of those lulls in solar activity that have been called a "quiet sun." It was also an era marked by a cold, unsettled climate throughout the northern hemisphere and a general decrease in vegetation throughout the globe. (Lynn H. Nelson, "The Aurora of 1192: Its Causes and Effects")

Interestingly, the Icelandic annals record the winter of 1118 as roðavetr, "the red winter", which is thought to be because of extraordinary red aurorae in the sky. (Cleasby-Vigfússon, An Icelandic-English Dictionary, p. 501 s.v. roðavetr.

We know that there have been times in history when the aurorae virtually disappeared due to lack of sunspot activity. For example:

On March 6, 1716, the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, returned to England. Few, if any, had ever seen this phenomenon, as it had been absent from the skies for over 70 years, since 1645 AD. "Frightened servants thronged the street convinced that the day of judgement had arrived." Scientists now know this was the end of the Maunder Minimum, a period when sunspots virtually disappeared. Without these sunspots, and the magnetic activity and solar wind that came with them, the Northern Lights disappeared. (Gerald T. Westbrook, "Editorial: The Hockey Stick, the Little Ice Age and the Medieval Warm Period.")

The third factor in determining Viking Age opportunities to view the aurora is the consideration that the Northern Lights are visible only in the winter. Although specialized satellite imaging has clearly shown that auroral activity happens in the daytime as well as at night, for a human observer the aurora must have the darkness of night to be be visible. In the polar regions and in Scandinavia, summer has very long days, and near midsummer the sky is never actually dark. In the winter, the reverse is true and northerners experience long dark hours of the winter night. One might think this would provide ideal aurora-watching weather, but the cold of northern winters, combined with Norse beliefs about elf-rides and the walking dead being especially prevalent menances near midwinter, may have discouraged Viking Age people from going out to marvel at any celestial lightshows that may have occurred.

Taken together, these facts tend to indicate that the Vikings (ca. 800-1100AD) probably did not see the aurora often, if at all, and as a result the phenomenon is not reflected in their literature and mythology.

Still, as Mistress Brynhildr points out, "Viking-Age Icelanders certainly saw geysers and steam and hot springs all the time, but they are barely mentioned in the sagas. So 'not being mentioned' doesn't have to mean 'not present'". But the absence of descriptions of the norðrljós or "northern lights" in Viking Age literature is certainly a striking one.

Aurora Photographs by Jan Curtis. (The Aurora Page)

Green Arc and Curtain Aurora, Photograph by Jan Curtis Green Aurora over Sunset, Photograph by Jan Curtis Two Green Auroral Arcs, Photograph by Jan Curtis

(Click on images to enlarge)




Bibliography

Sources on the Viking Age and Medieval Scandinavia

  • Cleasby, Richard and Guðbrandr Vigfusson. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon. 1957. p. 457 s.v. norðrljós, p. 501 s.v. roðavetr
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!

  • Hollander, Lee M. trans. Poetic Edda. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1962. 2nd revised edition, 1986.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!

  • Larrington, Carolyne, trans. The Poetic Edda. World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1997.
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  • Larson, Laurence Marcellus, trans. The King's Mirror (Speculum Regalae - Konungs Skuggsjá). New York: Twayne Publishers. 1917. Repr. 1972.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!

  • Straubhaar, Sandy (Mistress Brynhildr Kormáksdóttir). Email correspondence dated 4 March 2004 regarding the aurorae.

  • Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda. trans. Anthony Faulkes. Everyman Paperback Classics.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!

Sources on the Aurorae

Sources on the Earth and its Geomagnetism

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